Walid's Wanderings

Reflections on life, good-and-evil, family, humanity, and anything else that occurs to me, usually when I travel. Right now I am on a 6-year trip through Lebanon, the homeland I had never really lived in before.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

One Man

Today I picked up a hitchhiker on my way to Beirut. I knew he was going to ask for money the moment I noticed the rosary around his neck as he stepped into the car. Overt religious symbols worn by non-clergy usually indicate an intent to predispose others towards charity. Sure enough, he spent the first ten minutes of the ride entreating God to reward me with sucess, health, and the fruits growing in heaven for picking him up. Then, he started talking about himself.

He was from the South, from Cana, he said. I felt that asking if his home had been destroyed in teh war last summer would be too insensitive. He explained to me that he was looking for a job, any job, even if it paid $150 per hour, washing dishes, sitting watch over a villa, whatever. He was 71 years old, and those who did not turn him away outright told him plainly that he was too old. He listed all the Christian neighborhoods of Beirut and a lot of the mountain and said he had scoured them on foot and got the same answer. I did not have a villa in need of guarding, so I asked him if he had any children.

He did, and they had brough this upon him, he said. I prepared myself for hearing a family soap opera of alleged madness and shady real estate deals. Instead, I heard the story of Lebanon, notavailable on any TV station that I can receive with my satallite dish.

He had two sons and a daughter. He had spent all his retirtement money getting them college educations, he said. Then one day they told him that higher education was free in Russia, and they were going to emigrate there becasue there ws nothing for them here. His wife left with them, taking the last $4,000 he had left, and they promised to write him. Three years ago. He visits the post office every month, asking if there is anything in his name, and nothing arrives.

I thought about how everyone want to leave Lebanon. I thought about how those in charge had given lucrative monopolies on the post office, telecommunications, and tons beside to well-connected incompetents. I thought about how housemaids from the Philppines now ask for $500 per month and this guy cannot get $150. Day laborers from Syria now make $25 a day. The hithchiker kept on talking about how faith in God was so lacking these days and how someone who picks up a 71-year-old hitchhiker is a rarity in this day and age. I started thinking about how much money I shoulf give this poor guy when we stopped. It crossed my mind that he might have too much dignity to even ask. I sheepishly wondered out loud where he wanted to be dropped off.

"After the overpass" he said. There was a small town coming up and he though he could find many villas there, some possibly needing a 71-year-old watchman. I slowed down and dutifully stopped after the overpass.

"I wonder if you can help with a buck" he stammered. "I have not had breakfast." I reached into my wallet and gave him a twenty. He was flabbergasted. It seemed to me that this was not a denomination whose appearance he remebered. I told him what it was. He understood. Tears came into his eyes. I gave him a bottle of water and some slices of apple that my mom had packed me. He was nto sure he could chew with his remaining teeth, but he was sobbing so much he has to point to make me understand. I wished him luck, more in my heart than out loud and was on my way.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Staying Home

It seems that I am not the only one who feels that staying home is the only sane response to the radical polarization of political rhetoric in the country. Banks are closed, and I don't know what else, because trade associations, not political factions, called for it. It's inconvenient, to be sure, but incredibly sane in this atmosphere .

So what, one may ask, is this "atmosphere" of which I speak? Lebanon has always been an eclectic hodge-podge of political opinions. Somewhere between the mosque that honors the fourteenth imam of a sect that only recognizes thirteen, and the church that only fifty years ago joined a bigger church that for fifteen centuries called them heretics, you will find posters glorifying obscure Bolshevist leaders and announcements of lectures to discuss equally obscure nineteenth century British philosophers. We've got it all, and it has taken a lot, by design or by unfortunate turns of events, to get this place so polarized.

There were always big slogans. "The imprialists hate us". Ha ha says the silent majority. "The Syrians are bloodsucking brutes." "Maybe but consider the alternatives" say some. What an absurd false choice says the silent majority. "The Jews suffered so much in the Holocaust" you hear. "The poor Palestinians walked into our country with no shoes on because of how suddenly those Zionists drove them out". We'll send them shoes, but why do they need guns, says Lebanon. No slogan was big enough to push people back into the simple-minded dichotomies of the 1970s Civil war. But some shared experiences apparently were.

The behavior of the Syrians when they occupied Lebanon gives rise to very powerful pent-up emotions. The behavior of the militia leaders who are still in power gives rise to very powerful emotions. The persistence of all the corrupt practices that the Syrians were blamed for really grates on a lot of us. Added to this mix was what happened last summer. In fact, it just occurred to me what the main culprit in making the empty slogans of yesterday powerful enough to actually split this amazingly diverse population so neatly in two. Let us call it the "I know what you did last summer" syndrome.

In their zeal to shake off one source of Syrian influence, the current rulers of the cabinet stands accused of welcoming the war that destroyed 3% of our housing stock and 40% of our industrial capacity. At the same time, the nature of the incident that actually triggered the war is also not lost on those prepared to defend the cabinet. On the one hand, Hezballah played a bloody card to allow them to reveal three things: the extent of their hidden strength, the degree of self-control they must have to turn that force on and off only under extreme duress, and the indiscriminate nature of the foe against whom they stand. However, on the other hand, these very revelations were reinforced and became bigger drawing points for Hezballah when coupled with: the surprising obstinacy of the Bush administration against recognizing Hezballahs gambit for what it was, and the blind adherence of the ostensibly anti-Syrian coalition in Lebanon to the party line of the Bush administration's agenda.

Still, all this could have been resolved amicably. Yes, there are Syrian parties in Lebanon. These include Syrian intelligence agents, Lebanese citizens who think of themselves as Syrian first, and Lebanese citizens who want to be part of an Arab empire ruled by the ideology that now rules Syria. There are also Bush neo-conservatives in Lebanon, possibly following similar subclassifications, I do not know. The tragedy is that the rhetoric of the two major coalitions is pushing the huge majority that is neither into the opposite camp. The two tiny radical opposites I just described are happy to receive support from those who hate them just an iota less than they hate the opposite side. None of it makes sense from a rational perspective, but politics has a logic of tis own.

I, political leader X, can gain two followers by saying that my foe Y is secretly allied with extremist Z. But I lose twenty neutral citizens who now resent the lie. In Lebanon over the past few months, this logic has been operating in both directions. So much so that saying you are in the middle already pegs you as one sort of extremist or other, depending on subtle nuances in the words you choose to express your neutrality. "I resent A and I resent B" pits you against someone who says "I resent B and I resent A". Anyone out there think they know a way out?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Oh Boy

Once again things are happening in Lebanon that vaguely interest the outside world. I got no less than 6 calls from the BBC wanting the inside scoop on how everyman is coping with the latest assassination. Here's what I had to say:

People are scared. Really scared this time. Evidence?
  • I was teaching a class when the news came in and people wanted to go home. I took about half an hour from the time half a dozen students started getting phone calls and text messages in class that made them leave the room, and the time that the library clerk confirmed that the administration had OK'd closing the library and sending all the employees home. I of course dismissed the class too.
  • The streets were deserted. I have more than once driven home after 3 am. This time it was closer to 8 pm and the number of cars was lower. Especially cars parked on the sides of the street.
  • The army was out in force. We see army checkpoints a lot in Lebanon, and when know to turn on the inside light if its dark and lower the window. On this trip, I was checked by no less than three control points, and at each one a flashlight was used to make sure no suspicious cargo was in my minivan.
  • Many politicians felt the need to tell their followers to exercise control and avoid any violent actions. The need to make the statements as forcefully and as repeatedly and by as many people was more telling than the messages themselves.
Why are we scared? I thought about it on the drive home, and I broke it down to three reasons: When, whom and how.
  1. When: at a time when the country is polarized to an unprecedented extent. People follow political movements, and political movements make alliances with other political movements, and there is always a lot of room for change, for diversity, and for basic human decency to trump the factions' rhetoric. Not so much on the eve of November 21st 2006. The level of name calling across the divide, the level of solidarity within each camp, and the raw emotions felt by individuals in each camp, are just high.
  2. Whom: the victim this time belongs to a faction that was an active participant in the civil war. he has followers, mourners, supporters, family and organizational connections to people who have in the past killed innocent Lebanese en masse for political or monetary gain. Not so for the oligarchs like Hariri, Murr or Hamadeh, nor for those poor journalists, sad to say. They may have belonged to political movements, but none of the active civil war factions could be said to belong to them.
  3. How: with machine guns in broad daylight. This is how it was done in the civil war, so the killers may be construed to be also advertizing their confidence that their crime will be forgotten in the ensuing bloodbath.
What exactly are we afraid of? I remember telling one of the BBC newsmen that the last war in July had one silver lining in the solidarity we all felt against a foreign aggressor. We may have agreed or disagreed within Lebanon, but charity was offered and gratitude expressed all over the country. Those who left left until things blew over. In my case I did not want to consume precious fuel while the hospital generators were running low on stocks. By contrast, the civil war when it last happened lasted 20 years. All it took was extreme polarization and a strong enough trigger. Once it got going, the factional alliances continued to shift and the individuals continued to get disgusted by one faction and inspired by another, but the killing never stopped.

I'm sorry, I do not have time to grieve for the dead man, or to curse his killers or to defend this and that against accusations that may or may not be hasty. I want this coming war not to happen, and that is all I care about right now.